Motorcycles with Mat Oxley: October 2017

For years Andrea Dovizioso has been the thinking man’s racer. He’s now using brains rather than bravado to challenge for the title

Many fans of motorcycle racing consider their heroes to be 21st-century gladiators: heavily armoured warriors in pursuit of the ultimate kill – the MotoGP world championship.

This is truer now than ever it was, thanks to the win-by-any-means-necessary tactics of men like Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez and the late Marco Simoncelli. Physical contact between riders has become the norm. In fact it’s eagerly anticipated by some sensation-hungry fans – especially on a final lap.

But not every MotoGP star believes the “rubbin’ is racing” maxim. Andrea Dovizioso is one of them. The 31-year-old Italian is contesting his ninth season in the premier class and making his first bid for the title. He’s what you might call a slow burner: a rider who uses his brain more than his balls, who won’t take risks until he’s sure his motorcycle will do what he needs it to do.

Over the years he has been criticised for his refusal to take the kind of risks that riders like Márquez have turned into an art form.

“When people say things like this it means they don’t understand bike racing,” he says, quietly and deliberately. “Doing crazy things doesn’t mean you are a faster or better rider. For sure, the fans like to see riders doing something crazy, but to me this is not the key to winning. The key to winning is a lot of things – you must put everything together and do a lot of work in a lot of areas. It’s about having the right mentality. And I have confirmed that it is possible to win without doing crazy things.

“To go to the limit you have to feel the bike and you need the key to use the bike in the right way. My target is always to improve something. It’s not about risk, it’s about managing the situation in a better way. Small changes can create big differences – that’s why a 31-year-old is fighting for the championship.”

Dovizioso ignited his challenge for the MotoGP title with three wins over six races between June and August. None of those victories came easily, but his defeat of Márquez at the Red Bull Ring was sublime: the mastermind versus the merciless.

The two were never separated by more than two tenths of a second during the last third of the race, Dovizioso leading into the last lap, fully aware of what was coming his way. He hugged the kerb through the first part of the circuit’s final double right, where Márquez nearly tailgated him. Then somehow the Spaniard got alongside the Ducati and lunged past into the last corner – except that Dovizioso had it all worked out.

“I didn’t expect Marc to overtake me there because there’s no room, but I heard his engine, so I left the door open because if I had closed the door for sure he would have hit me and probably won the race. So I left the door open and I was able to exit faster.” Dovizioso let Márquez enter the turn too quickly, which ran him wide, then undercut him – his brain defeating Márquez’s bravery.

That last-lap strategy may have worked perfectly, but the foundation of Dovizioso’s successes is meticulous preparation, especially tyre choice, now more crucial than ever. At the Red Bull Ring he chose a medium-compound Michelin rear slick for his three-lap qualifying run and a soft rear for the 28-lap race.

“I think it’s better we don’t speak of soft, medium or hard, because in one tyre there are three or four different rubbers,” he explains. “There is a mix in every tyre, so you need to understand which rubber will be better for hot temperatures or cold temperatures. The step between each tyre is very small, so it’s difficult for everyone to manage the choice. Every day is different and every temperature can create different grip. That’s why the championship is so close and every Grand Prix is different.” And perhaps this explains Dovizioso’s current form, because cerebral power is currently more important than taking risks.

Like most Italian racers, Dovizioso took his first steps up the road racing ladder aboard minimotos – Lilliputian bikes that kids race around kart tracks. His greatest minimoto rival was Simoncelli. Even then, their contrasting riding styles caused friction. Dovizioso graduated to a full-size motorcycle at the age of 13; straight from a minimoto to an Aprilia RS125 Grand Prix machine. This was a big mistake for a rider who doesn’t enjoy taking giant leaps into the unknown.

“It was very traumatic. Going directly to a GP bike was too big a jump because the bike wasn’t easy and the engine was so difficult. The first three times I went very, very slow and the team fired me.”

Dovizioso switched to 125cc road-bike racing, won the national championship in 2000 and commenced his full-time Grand Prix career two years later. In 2004 he won the 125cc world championship, aboard a full-blown Grand Prix bike, then twice finished runner-up in the 250cc series. He graduated to MotoGP with Honda in 2008, scored his first win at a damp Donington Park the following year, spent 2012 with an independent Yamaha team and joined Ducati at the end of that season.

At that time Rossi’s long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess had this to say when Dovizioso replaced Rossi at Ducati. “Ducati has realised that it needs to work in a systematic way to develop the bike and they’re going use Andrea to do that. They’ll take a lot from this and maybe come back with a good bike that might hurt us all in a couple of years...”

Mat Oxley has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner and has written acclaimed biographies of Valentino Rossi and Mick Doohan